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Grand Forks area employers try to reverse shortage of workers in their 30s

Nick Jensen is someone who might be called a “boomerang.”

A graduate of Red River High School, Jensen went to college in Duluth before moving to his wife’s native country of England. Later, while traveling in Asia, Jensen got a job offer to work at BBI International in either Minneapolis or Grand Forks, where his family still resides.

He chose Grand Forks.

“It was something where, for my wife not being American, it was a little bit easier having that support structure,” said Jensen, 32, who now works as director of corporate partnerships for the UND Athletics Department.

Jensen’s story is one local business leaders would like to see more often. They point to a lack of younger experienced workers as one of the conditions hindering an otherwise strong local economy.

That workforce concern is exemplified by the area’s demographics. The portion of Grand Forks’ population in the 30-39 age range is relatively small, and the number of people in their 30s in northeastern North Dakota actually decreased by 19 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to census figures.

To some, the relative lack of younger experienced workers is a lingering effect of a “brain drain” that previously occurred in North Dakota. Kevin Iverson, who manages the census office at the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said the phenomenon is reflected across the state and “reflects an out-migration that happened probably in the 1990s, when people were leaving the state.”

“What we are suffering in that age range is the fact that our economy a while ago wasn’t so good,” Iverson added. “And people, when they graduated, left the area.”

Finding workers

A survey of local businesses a few years ago found that many companies were lacking young, experienced workers. Demographic data later compiled by Praxis Strategy Group showed that the portion of Grand Forks’ population that was in their late 30s was about 70 percent of the national average.

Though the Grand Forks figures are heavily influenced by the UND student population, local business leaders said the demographics are concerning.

“This missing age demographic is consistent with employer reports of recruitment problems of mid-career professionals,” the September 2010 Praxis report stated.

The city of Grand Forks’ Human Resources Director Daryl Hovland said he’s actually seen a decrease in job applications recently, leading to some applications remaining open for as much as three times longer than they’re usually posted.

“With the people retiring, I just don’t think there’s a workforce out there to replace us,” he said. “So, we have to be really creative in getting people to come to public service.”

Hovland said the city tries to stress Grand Forks’ quality of life to potential employees.

“When you’re looking at the 30- to 40-year-old demographics, those are the people who want to settle down and raise a family,” Hovland said.

Wayne Dietrich, principal architect at EAPC, said Grand Forks is one of their most difficult locations to recruit employees, at least partly because of a perception that it’s a remote community. But he said perhaps a bigger problem is not having enough experienced employees to mentor the younger ones.

Retaining grads

For years, North Dakota suffered from a lackluster economy that prompted graduates to leave the state. 

But now that the state’s economy is improving and more job opportunities are available, there’s at least some evidence that young people are staying here, Iverson said. North Dakota retained 71 percent of 2010-2011 UND graduates who also went to high school here — the highest retention rate in the past 16 years, according to a recent UND survey.

Retaining talent could be a key to cultivating a workforce. Iverson said that as people reach their mid-30s, they tend to become less prone to move.

Corey Mock, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals, said his organization is not merely focused on recruiting new residents from outside the state but also retaining talent that’s already here.

“Our objective is … to make sure everyone at all ages and all levels of their professional development can feel comfortable calling Grand Forks home,” Mock said. 

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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